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Staying chilled

C
H

Andy Jarosz experiences the wonders of a northern Japanese winter, both man-made and natural


As I walk between a magnificent Indian monument and an imposing Malaysian government building, I wrap my scarf ever tighter and pull down my hat to protect my ears from the cold. The snowy replicas, every bit as grand as the originals despite the temporary nature of the construction materials, are just one part of the Sapporo Yuki Matsuri, an annual, week-long celebration of snow and ice, attracting around two million Japanese and international visitors.

 

Hokkaido is the northernmost of Japan's four main islands and is roughly the size of Ireland. Winters are notoriously harsh yet it's during the coldest months that the island attracts many of its visitors with both man-made attractions and natural wonders. The city of Sapporo receives a staggering five metres of snow a year, making it the perfect place to host a snow festival.

 

At the festival's main Odori site, 10 blocks of city parkland have been temporarily transformed by the snow exhibits. Most striking are the giant sculptures, with a replica of Agra's Mausoleum of Itmad-Ud-Daulah (better known as 'Baby Taj') taking centre stage, along with an impressive copy of the British-designed Sultan Abdul Samad building in Kuala Lumpur, complete with clock tower. The artworks have been constructed over several weeks, with several hundred people chipping away at the ice in bitter temperatures to get everything ready in time. The tempting aroma of hot food drifts from clusters of stalls around the sculptures and I join the crowds taking respite from the cold to tuck into meat skewers, fish balls and roasted nuts, washed down with steaming bowls of miso soup, Sapporo beer and sake.

 

neon skyscrapers

 

Around 30 ice sculptures stand in the centre of a busy road in the nearby Susukino district, their intricate details illuminated against a backdrop of neon-saturated skyscrapers.

 

Further afield at the Tsudome site, the focus is firmly on having fun in the snow. I grab a giant tyre, dragging it up a slope and then hurtling down a 100 metre-long slide. Emerging with a broad grin and a generous dusting of powdered snow, I head straight for a snow raft ride, squeezing onto a raft with two Japanese families before being towed by a snowmobile, with the children shouting excitedly as the driver tosses our raft from side to side along the bumpy course. The atmosphere is one of relaxed enjoyment, with children dressed in brightly-coloured snowsuits, enthusiastic volunteers at every turn, and the ever-alluring smell of Sapporo's famous miso ramen soup.

 

snowball fights

 

While Sapporo hosts Japan's most famous winter festival, other towns and cities in Hokkaido also celebrate the winter. I visit the Snow Light Path Festival in Otaru, a short train ride away. A narrow walkway alongside a frozen canal in this once-major fishing port is lit by hundreds of home-made lanterns and thousands of revellers have braved the cold to admire the spectacle, pose for photos next to heart-shaped lanterns and start impromptu snowball fights. It feels like a Japanese version of Christmas, albeit with an ever-present temptation of fresh crab and soya sauce from the nearby stalls.

 

The temperatures drop steadily as I head towards the north coast of Hokkaido but on the Sea of Okhotsk, I turn my attention to birds rather than carvings as I board a wildlife-spotting cruise on an ice-breaker. This is the southernmost part of the Northern Hemisphere to experience annual drift ice and I'm in search of Steller's sea eagles and white-tailed eagles, both of which exploit the ice as a happy winter hunting ground.

 

The boat ploughs through chunks of sea ice before shutting down engines, allowing our small group to set up cameras and snap huge numbers of these majestic raptors as they are drawn to the boat by the prospect of a ready meal. The eagles perch on frozen pinnacles and wait patiently as the crew toss the occasional fish onto the ice. Encountering an eagle at close quarters is a rare event; to see hundreds is something I'll never forget.

 

To the east of Hokkaido, I visit the town of Tsurui in search of Japanese cranes and stay with Makoto Ando, a nature guide and professional photographer. I set off with him at 6am, wrapped in multiple thermal layers and the bright red down jacket I'd been relying on since my arrival in Hokkaido a week earlier. "We may not see much this morning," he says with a look of disappointment. "It's minus 9°C; too warm. It's better when it's below minus 20."

 

He was wrong. The gangly birds are easily spotted on the nearby Kushiro marshes and in the winter months, they perform their elaborate courtship ritual, dancing gracefully on the snow in an attempt to attract the best mate. There are many hundreds of pairs of cranes in the countryside around Tsurui and Makoto takes us to his own secret spot, away from the busloads of eager photographers who gather at various sites around the marshes.

 

And as if the sight of the cranes wasn't enough, Makoto has one more treat in store for us. After a brief walk through an isolated, snowy wood, we stop short of a hollow in a tree and there, no more than 20 metres in front of us, is a Ural owl. He stares impassively as we gasp in surprise before ever-so-quietly taking out a camera to record the extraordinary sight.

 

Celebrating winter, Japanese style

 

Okayama Naked Festival – Going against the image of Japanese reserve, this is an uninhibited celebration taking place each February at a temple in Okayama, when hundreds of men in loin cloths fight to catch lucky sticks thrown by a priest.

 

Kyoto Hanatoro – For several winter nights, the famous temples and backstreets of Kyoto are lit by lanterns, producing a colourful glow and magical atmosphere.

WAY TO GO

Wakakusa Yamayaki

One night in January, the hillside of Mount Wakakusa near Nara is set alight, while fireworks are simultaneously set off, producing a spectacular pyrotechnic display.

 

Inside Japan Tours

Inside Japan Tours offers tailor-made trips to Japan including a Winter Highlights tour that includes the Sapporo festival, ice-breaker cruise and the crane sanctuaries. Tel. 0117 370 9751/ www.insidejapantours.com

 

JTB

JTB offers tailor-made and escorted tours all over Japan, year-round, including winter sports trips, the Sapporo festival and an itinerary exploring Hokkaido by rail. Tel: 020 8237 1605 / www.japanspecialist.co.uk

 

Japan Journeys

Japan Journeys features guided and independent tours with themes from Manga to bonsai, as well as stopovers and family holidays. Tel. 020 7766 5267 / www.japanjourneys.co.uk

 

Virgin Atlantic

Flies daily between London and Tokyo. www.virgin-atlantic.com

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